At 7:30 in the morning four or five days a week, pastry chef Paula Stakelum can be found out for a run on the 350-acre estate in County Mayo where she works. She runs along Lough Corrib not only for leisure, but to keep a watchful eye on wild ingredients that play a significant role in her kitchen.
If aroma and ripeness are right, she returns by bicycle later to forage. “You know when something is ready—you smell it,” Stakelum says. “That’s where I begin, with a smell I love. Then I ask: how can I capture that on the plate?”
Foraging is often associated with savory foods, but Paula works with chocolate, an underappreciated taste of Ireland (it makes sense, with such superior dairy that Ireland would be home to sublime milk chocolate). Back in the Chocolate Room in Ashford Castle, the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts Property and five-star estate in the west of Ireland where she’s worked for nine years, Paula is pushing boundaries about what goes with chocolate, incorporating unexpected ingredients such as pine tips.
But before Paula conceived elegant desserts like a chocolate bavarois (Bavarian cream) with estate wood sorrel and cocoa nibs, foraging began with the familiar. “At first, you pick the things you know,” Paula says. At Ashford, that meant fruit like blackberries and raspberries, followed by elderflower and crab apples. Then the foraging took a more experimental turn. She infused Irish rapeseed oil with pine tips, utilizing the fragrant result to make a ganache (replacing butter with rapeseed oil as a healthier fat content alternative).“I wanted to capture the sensation of encountering these aromas outdoors, at the table,” Paula says.
Hotel guests and chocolate lovers can sample Paula’s creations during Ashford Castle’s renowned Afternoon Tea service (don’t miss the chocolate torte with dark chocolate mousse) or straight from the menu in the George V restaurant (Paula is currently excited about a forest rhubarb and white chocolate dessert). Her work can also be seen in the petit fours after dinner and the chocolate on your pillow.
“Obviously, cocoa beans don’t grow in Ireland,” Paula says with a wink. “We have a partnership with Valrhona (a French premium chocolate manufacturer).” Valrhona chocolate, Irish milk and butter, and wild estate ingredients combine in Ashford’s Chocolate Room, a temperature-controlled space—18 degrees Celsius or 64 Fahrenheit—that provides precise conditions for working with chocolate.
Beyond foraged ingredients, Paula has experimented with other signature Irish flavors from Midleton Very Rare whiskey to Shortcross Gin. She’s also discovered subtle differences in the foraged ingredients depending on what section of the estate they originate from. “When you pick pine tips from one side of the castle to the other, the flavor varies,” Paula says. “The soil has a different pH, so one may have more lemon flavors while another is more lime.”
The result of her small-batch creations is a bite that can’t be found anywhere else in Ireland.
Where to Find Chocolate in Ireland
- Ashford Castle can connect guests with a chocolatier for a hands-on lesson, including the opportunity to roll your own Irish truffles.
- One of the original chocolatiers in Ireland is Butlers Chocolates, dating back to 1932. Several Butlers Chocolates Cafes are located in Dublin, Galway, Cork, and Limerick.
- Afternoon Tea enthusiasts will want to make a reservation at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin to try a decadent éclair made with Valrhona chocolate.
- Order the Madong Chocolate Delice at Lough Eske Castle in County Donegal to taste a dessert featuring single-origin chocolate from Papua New Guinea where cocoa trees grow in volcanic soil.
- Popular chocolatiers across the country include the Truffle Fairy in County Kilkenny and Koko of Kinsale in County Cork.